Transitioning to ISO 45001 – four things you need to know about organisational culture

Find out why an organisational culture change initiative is like reading Stephen Hawking’s book ‘A Brief History of Time’

In my blog post ‘Why ISO 45001 is a safety revolution’ I mentioned the key differences between ISO 45001 and OHSAS 18001. One of them is the need to understand the cultural context of the organisation and what drives it – an aspect of ISO 45001 which has no equivalent in OHSAS 18001. As an organisational development consultancy, organisational culture is the backdrop to everything that we do – if you work in an organisation it’s the back drop to everything you do too. It’s also something that is often misunderstood. To understand organisational culture, you need to know the following four things. Hopefully, when you do, this will help you to ‘build in’ not ‘bolt on’ safety to organisational culture.

Before we begin, here’s a question:

What is an organisational culture change initiative like reading Stephen Hawking’s book ‘A Brief History of Time’?

You’ll have to wait till the end of the blog for the answer, but here’s the first thing you need to know about culture:

1. It’s complex

Organisations are ‘complex systems’ – open systems to be exact. The ‘systems’ bit means that all the different parts of an organisation are connected, so something happening in one area impacts on the others through the ripple effect. The ‘open’ bit means all those parts are also connected to the outside, so changes outside impact inside. The ‘complex’ bit is that the connections between the parts aren’t necessarily obvious or even visible, so the impact of changes inside or outside can be unpredictable. In addition, organisations are constantly moving and changing as internal and external conditions change. All of which make organisations, and therefore culture, complex.

2. It has breadth

From 'Transitioning to ISO 45001 - four things you need to know about organisational culture' - a blog post to help those wanting to 'build in' not 'bolt on' safety to organisational culture. How all the different elements of an organisation are connected through core values, the beating heart of the organisation.
Beehive SySTERMS Model showing formal connections through the core values of the organisation

Culture encompasses everything in and about an organisation. It isn’t held in HR, it isn’t a ‘thing’ that is ‘bolted on’ – that sits alongside strategy or in corporate – it is everything. The structure of the organisation, its strategy, the systems, the employees and training, management, resources, and the patterns of how these functions interact – all of these are part of the culture. So, culture is both complex, and it has breadth.

3. It has depth

Most of organisational culture is invisible – held at what’s called the ‘psychological’ level. Like an iceberg, part of it is above the surface but more of it is below. This means you’re unlikely to be aware of it most of the time because it’s just ‘the way we do things round here’. In fact the only time people are really aware of the culture is in the first two to three months of a new job, or after a merger where two cultures are brought closely together!

The things above the surface include what you can touch, like the uniforms, offices and reception areas, company cars, PPE, for example, and what you can see like the branding, and behaviours – how employees speak to and treat each other, how conflict is dealt with, what happens in meetings, etc.

Below the surface are the intangible and invisible parts of culture – the collective mindset, attitudes, beliefs and values that drive organisational behaviours. What’s above provides the clues to what’s below. A great example of this are the ‘symbols of power’.

'Transitioning To ISO 45001' - four things you need to know about organisational culture to make it easier. If you want to make a cultural change it's helpful to know these four things before you begin. Understanding the complexities and the multi level nature of culture means you can anticipate and plan more effectively.

‘Symbols of power’ are the things that demonstrate who and what’s important – who gets a parking space or company car, who gets the best office, the state of the works canteen, helmet colour, who’s late for meetings without comment. There can be a difference between what’s said, in the mission statement or company values, and what’s done – that difference is part of the culture too. If you want to know the real values, look at what happens, not what’s said. For example, on the Niceberg, CEO Mr C Gull is giving friendly fish a V sign despite the mission statement ‘to be nice’.

4. It has a fourth dimension – time

In the same way that our past experiences shape us as a person and influence how we feel about what’s happening in the present, past organisational events impact on how employees respond to what’s happening in the present too. If there has been a poorly executed job evaluation in the past where employees felt undervalued, for example, the next time a significant change is introduced there may be more resistance. Past events and the feelings associated with them are communicated through stories told that can develop into powerful organisational myths. These can be exaggerated over time, and rarely challenged.

So in a nutshell:

In order to transition to ISO45001 you need to understand the cultural context. To help you do this you need to know: organisational culture is complex. Organisational parts – functions, teams, departments, sites – are interconnected, and therefore interdependent. The connections aren’t linear, though, or immediately obvious or even visible because they include what’s under the surface too; collective values, attitudes, beliefs, emotions and experiences. Most of culture is held in that out of awareness place – what’s above the surface only provides the clues to it. This is the case whatever the size of the organisation, but the bigger the organisation the more complex it is.

Example – introducing a questioning attitude on site

  • Introducing a questioning attitude sounds straightforward – you tell people, if you’re uncertain or think something is unsafe, ask a question or challenge. But for it to be most effective, and referring to the Beehive SySTERMS Model:
  • Employees need to have the communication skills and confidence to challenge constructively – asking ‘what the f***!’ isn’t what’s needed here (Employees).
  • If employees are recruited on the basis of technical skills alone this may not be the case (HR SYstems).
  • If the training function has a technical focus there may not be the capability within the organization to develop the communication skills needed (Training).
  • If soft skills are not seen as important (Values) there may not be the money made available for soft skills development (Resources).
  • Managers need to have the awareness and confidence to deal constructively with questioning and challenge (Management).
  • In traditional hierarchies where managers tell and others do (Structure), having employees question may feel like too big a challenge to ‘how we do things round here’ (Values).
  • An employee who questions a manager in this environment is taking a big risk.
  • If someone questions and is knocked back, that story could become part of company folklore where it can act as a barrier to change.

So, how does all this answer the question: why is an organisational culture change initiative like reading Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’?

Answer – Because they are both started with the best of intentions, but rarely finished.

They’re both rarely finished because people underestimate the amount of time, commitment and energy required to finish them. In a short-term, fast-changing world anything that doesn’t create immediate results is likely to be side-lined, and the importance of ‘soft’ power, and the intangible elements of culture are often not taken into account in the planning. This can result in a re-structure, but with the same core values, beliefs and mindset, and therefore the same behaviours, causing the same problems.

First steps in culture change

To truly ‘build it in’, safety has to become a core organisational value – running through the organisation like words through a stick of rock; role-modelled by directors, adequately resourced and measured, a key part of business strategy, the backdrop to every decision made. The good thing is the shift from OHSAS 18001 to ISO 45001 shows that that is now recognised – it is the future of safety.

Beehive SySTERMS Model – building safety in, not bolting it on

What are your experiences of culture change or behaviour change? Do any of these four things ring true for you? I’d be interested in your examples.

PS Beehive is running a free safety culture seminar as part of its ‘b.SAFE@Brathay’ partnership at Brathay in Cumbria on March 29th 2019. We’ll share the results of our research with Bangor university into organisational culture, and our trust-based safety culture model, the D2iT. For more information please contact

Beehive is working in partnership with the National Skills Academy Nuclear (NSAN), providing one-day ‘Coaching to Support a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture’ workshops. The next workshop is on June 12th 2019, venue tbc. For more details please contact Stacy

The first step in any change is a gap analysis – identify where you are now and where you want to be so you can plan the next steps. There are many ways of doing this – an ISO 45001 audit, a safety culture analysis, or a more general cultural 360 like the OCI, the Organisational Culture Inventory. For more information contact